January is National Stalking Awareness Month
It’s Not a Joke and It’s Not Okay!
Everyday law enforcement encounters a crime that has some connection to stalking. Unfortunately, this is the point when most people recognize the seriousness of stalking – after it leads to other serious crimes. January is National Stalking Awareness Month and its mission is to help educate the public about identifying and acting in cases of stalking and to stop it in its tracks before it becomes violent or deadly.
According to the Department of Justice, one in six women and one in nineteen men have experienced serious stalking victimization in their lifetime. That number sounds high, but the actual numbers may be even higher. The generally accepted working definition of stalking is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.” Legal definitions of stalking, however, vary from one jurisdiction to another as does the measure of “fear” and both of which complicate our understanding of the crime, and the reporting statistics.
What is Stalking?
A stalker may be someone the victim knows well, casually, or not at all. The act of stalking includes the act of following and pursuing another individual to the point it causes fear. This means the individual may follow the victim in person, repeatedly call and hang up, text, and email. They may show up to places you frequent, video you in public, drive by your home or place of work, or send unwanted gifts. Stalkers may also monitor phone calls and computer use, or use technology such as hidden cameras or GPS systems to track your whereabouts. They may go through your garbage or use public records, online searches, or hire private investigators to find out more about you. Stalkers may do things like spread rumors online or call your place of employment to complain about your service or suggest your involvement in illegal activities. Stalking often elevates to threats of violence against the victim or their family members or pets.
Confusing Crime with Romance
In her study “I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking”, university researcher Julia Lippman found that romantic comedies normalize and romanticize stalking behaviors. After showing a series of six films, two which portrayed incidents of acts considered criminal stalking in a positive light, There’s Something About Mary and Management; two which conveyed stalking negatively, Enough and Sleeping with the Enemy; and two films considered neutral, March of the Penguins and Winged Migration, she found those who believed the stalking myths portrayed in films were more likely to take aggressive stalking behavior less seriously. She asserts that such movies perpetuate dangerous myths and teach women that stalking is a compliment which can lead to inaction.
The Things We Believe
In the movie “Love, Actually”, Keira Knightley’s character discovers her husband’s best friend has secretly been filming her while at the same time treating her disdainfully. Later, in a moment that is supposed to be the poignant climax of the movie, he shows up at her house to profess his tortured, unrequited love while her husband is unknowingly upstairs. The scene makes one sympathetic to her husband’s friend and directs you to overlook the overtly creepy and invasive fact that his apartment is filled with secretly shot photos and video footage of her. We are led to believe “persistent pursuit” is normal, and even charming. Unfortunately, this and other myths such as “the victim just needed to communicate a lack of interest”, “the victim originally had interest and changed their minds”, “the stalker just really loves the victim”, and “there is no real danger” blur the lines between love and obsession, and perpetuate the belief that there is no real harm in stalking.
Precursor to Violent Crimes
While the media often trivializes stalking behavior, the act is traumatizing and often lethal. The Department of Justice recognizes stalking as a precursor to more serious crimes such as physical violence, rape, and even homicide. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that 76% of women murdered by an intimate partner had previously reported being stalked by the perpetrator. There is not a clear estimate of the number of men who have been killed by their stalkers. However, due to the methodology of various surveys, the lack of victim awareness and reporting, as well as differing definitions of stalking, it is nearly impossible to clearly estimate how many victims of violence or homicide were also previously victims of stalking by the perpetrator.
Even locally, stalking ambiguities can cause problems in litigation even when the act of stalking is clear. In 2013, an Overland Park woman was being followed in her car late one night by a 19-year-old man, turn for turn. The young man, an Eagle Scout whom she first encountered in a grocery store parking, lot was now wearing a ski mask. She dialed 911 and operators instructed her to go the police station. Mid way, the young man was intercepted by police officers. In his car, they found gloves, a knife, and other items used in the commission of sexual crimes. Police did not know what would come out later, that he had stalked another woman two weeks prior.
Johnson County lawyers said the case was difficult to prosecute under the Kansas stalking law. The law states in order to win a stalking conviction, prosecutors must prove someone recklessly engaged in a course of conduct constituting two or more acts over a period of time evidencing a continuity of purpose. Jurors must decide whether there are two specific acts, which can be difficult to discern when the definition is what some feel is vague. Ultimately, the man was sentenced to two years felony probation in a plea agreement.
Fortunately, stalking is one of the few crimes where early intervention can prevent violence and death. Healthy Kansas City magazine supports a greater awareness for crimes like stalking and encourages everyone in the health community to learn more about its signs in order to prevent its future consequences.
For more information, please visit these sites:
National Center for Victims of Crime: http://victimsofcrime.org
Stalking Resource Center Fact Sheet: https://www.ocrsm.umd.edu/files/stalking-fact-sheet_english.pdf
“I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs about Stalking”: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0093650215570653